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World premiere comedy captures Maine spirit

BANGOR The Bangor Opera House is playing host to a truly hair-raising experiencean experience taking place for the very first time.

Penobscot Theatre Company is presenting the world premiere of 'Hair Frenzy,' a new work by local playwright Travis Baker. Directed by PTC veteran Dominick Varney, this spiritual sequel to 2014's Clauder Prize-winning 'One Blue Tarp' is running through Feb. 14.

The play revisits the fictional town of Clara, Maine; it's a small town with a big heart, filled with the sorts of regular folks and eccentric characters that will likely ring familiar to anyone who has spent time in our state.

Tina Harvey (Jen Shepard) is the owner of the titular Hair Frenzy, Clara's best (and probably only) hair salon. She shares her space with young Kaisee (Amanda Sinko), an ambitious young lady with big dreams and a bigger mouth. There aren't a ton of customers, though the ladies from the retirement community led by former fourth-grade teacher Mrs. Bonner (Jeri Misler) bring in a fair amount of business.

Meanwhile, Tina is doing her best to be a good mom to her daughter Ella (Rachel Palmer) despite the unreliable and haphazard presence of the girl's father, a musician-turned-flagger named Bobtom (Bradley LaBree). Plus, she apparently needs a sign permit and the local tax preparer/permit guy a bumbling tryhard named Stuart (Jason Preble) works out of the office next door; they share a bathroom. Oh, and he's totally in love with her.

However, chaos really ensues when Torryn Bennoch (A.J. Mooney) blows into town. Torryn is one of Clara's most successful native daughters she left as a child and went on to become one of the world's biggest movie stars. She and her current beau, the Swedish actor Gustav Lundquist (Ira Kramer), have arrived in Clara in the hopes that Tina Torryn's childhood best friend might be able to work her magic on a head of hair gone horribly awry. Should Tina succeed, it might turn out to be a truly life-changing hairdo.

Every one of these people has his or her own personal definitions of what home and happiness truly are. Torryn's arrival causes each of them to reevaluate their feelings about who they are and what they wantand what they're willing to do to get it.

Developing a new play involves a lot of work by a lot of people; PTC Artistic Director Bari Newport has taken on a laborious, ambitious and ultimately admirable task here. This piece came together over a span of years, through a multitude of drafts and a number of readings; all so that Baker and by extension, us could spend some more time visiting Clara.

The script isn't perfect; there are a few narrative hiccups and an odd rough edge or two particularly in the second act that might benefit from a bit more sanding, but those are minor concerns in the grand scheme of things. Overall, this play is heartfelt and poignant and pretty darned funny.

Tina Harvey is the heart and soul of 'Hair Frenzy,' the foundation of the narrative. She is played with a nimble balance of sweetness and sarcasm by Jen Shepard; there's a simplicity to the portrayal that manages to feel genuine even when occasionally scaling the heights of absurdity. In Amanda Sinko's hands, Kaisee is the definition of a small-town wild child; her energy is constant, unflagging and tonally perfect.

LaBree is one of the area's most consistently excellent comedic performers, so it's no surprise that his take on Bobtom is hilarious; his portrayal is extremely broad, yet carries an implication of more subtle depths. Mooney's Torryn is a whirlwind, the epitome of entitlement. Her braggadocio conceals an interior insecurity that fascinates on those occasions that it breaks the surface.

Kramer's Gustav is all broad gestures and goofy accent; it's rare to see actors commit as completely to the bit as Kramer does. Gustav is bigger than big and it works. On the other end of the spectrum, Jason Preble's Stuart is all neuroses and desperation; he manages to make the character's nigh-constant flop sweat and general awkwardness more funny than sad. Palmer gives Ella a much needed dose of sass on the young end, while Misler does the same with a side of crustiness in the upper reaches of the age scale as Mrs. Bonner.

As per usual for PTC, the production values are exceptional. Scenic designer Chez Cherry has a knack for creating sets that present the appearance of legitimate functionality his Hair Frenzy looks like a for-real hair salon while still inviting theatricality. Additionally, the backdrop painted by Cherry himself is an old-school touch that is perfectly executed. Heather Crocker's lighting design shines brightest during the show's outlandish asides, helping transport the action without a single scenic change. Brandie Larkin and Meredith Perry do their usual outstanding work designing sound and props, respectively, while Kevin Koski flat-out nails the costuming.

Taking on a new script is a daunting task for any director, but Dominick Varney is someone who knows his way around a stage. It takes a special brand of confidence to accept the collaborative realities of directing a world premiere production; Varney's handling of the material is skillful and respectful, helping the shared vision to come to fruition.

'Hair Frenzy' is a comedy of character, packed with affectionate ribbing aimed at Baker's adopted home. The spirit of the place, the soul the very thing that he succinctly captured in 'One Blue Tarp' is present in every line. Add to that some engaging direction and a dynamic cast and the end result is an unbe-weave-able theatrical experience.

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